Organizational Case Studies
The following sample vignettes are taken from real, organizational clients. Details have been modified to maintain confidentiality while preserving the essential elements of each circumstance and engagement. Readers will notice that the ultimate outcome – the expected “mission accomplished” – of each episode is missing. This is deliberate: Reengaging the power of your organization’s best self is a trajectory, a path, not the end of a story.
Taking the “Mean” out of “Lean and Mean”
The food manufacturing facility had been squeezed considerably over the prior several years, especially having been recently acquired by its third ownership group, a private equity firm. To say that they exemplified the “mean” in a “lean and mean” operation would be an understatement. Consequently, morale, trust, and engagement were at an all-time low. Absenteeism, product “shrinkage,” equipment damage, and discipline problems were rampant. Sales were struggling and customer satisfaction ratings continued a quarter-by-quarter downward plunge. Those who were the favourites of the plant director and other key, senior management staff had a cushy life. Everyone else was miserable. What seemed like the last straws were the arrival of a new acquirer – a major, household name company in a related business from the US – and an organization culture consultant engaged to help turn around attitudes and behaviours—me.
My assignment was to create a three-faceted program: Training in new managerial methods that were consistent with the parent company’s more enlightened organization culture, group coaching for front-line supervisors in its application, and one-on-one coaching for individual supervisors and managers that would help facilitate the transition. Grounded in the 10-20-70 philosophy – 10% formal training, 20% informal applied learning, and 70% practical application and facilitated reflection – the program inculcated principles of appreciative management practices and a coaching approach to task delegation, progress check-ins, feedback and correction, and overall performance assessment. What made the assignment even more challenging was the requirement to effect a substantive cultural turnaround with corresponding improvements in business metrics in only seven months.
The program rolled out in a 4-week cycle. The first week was a half- or full-day formal trainingsession with ample opportunity to practice new scripts and skills. The second week reinforced the newly learned material in group coaching among the team of supervisor-participants. Third and fourth weeks offered in-depth, one-on-one sessions with each participant during which specific and individual challenges became the focus of confidential coaching conversations and reflection. The transformation was nowhere near complete by the end of the 7-month engagement, but it was well on the way. Employees at all levels collaborated in ways that they could never have previously conceived. Key engagement metrics – absenteeism, product shrinkage, worker’s compensation claims, and equipment damage – were all down significantly. Employee-initiated innovations had begun to flow into newly created operations review committees. Perhaps most important, customer satisfaction scores skyrocketed and production productivity increased 70% compared to a baseline measured at the beginning of the project. Although the Canadian organization has since undergone several more changes, the products coming out of its facilities have a now familiar presence and significantly expanded shelf space in every major Canadian supermarket.
Putting the Social into the Social Service Agency
The agency had long struggled with a “silo” mentality among its various programming departments. Each director had their annual programming calendar and, despite a nominal planning cycle that promoted an intention of new and innovative, each subsequent year’s calendar for the agency was much like that of the prior year. “Collaboration” involved little more than coordinating publicity and materials for overlapping events between departments. The challenge of introducing change in a well-entrenched set of cultural practices was made even more daunting by the very limited, non-programming budget available at the agency—whatever organizational intervention was to be done had to be a one-shot, first-time success. The programming leader called me.
Taking an appreciative, strengths-based approach enabled the various department heads to come to an important realization. Individual differences in function and scope of responsibility limited their ability to appreciate the commonality among the unique ways in which each department touched their particular constituencies. Together, the department heads co-constructed a model of Tactility for the agency—who they touch and how those individuals are touched. In randomly assembled groupings of both programming and staff department heads, they were challenged with creating a new program that expressed that tactility and used the particular skills and interests of the working group’s members. After the half-day session – which resulted in two viable and novel proposals, and one other tabled for further thinking – participants were encouraged to meet informally to carry forward and continue to develop the proposals.
This very small but tremendously impactful intervention not only modelled, but ignited what has become an agency-wide practice of interdepartmental collaboration. New collaborative models of hiring, budgeting, project management, and other functions beyond (and including) program development are now being experimented with and exercised, with each iteration’s learning informing the next. Individuals are finding themselves with new autonomy in an environment that increasingly values collective responsibility and mutual accountability.